Dealing with Depression while Living with Paralysis


This article is written on behalf of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center (PRC). The PRC is a national resource which provides a road map of complimentary services and programs to empower individuals living with  paralysis.

Whether it is participating in a competitive sport or a recreational workout, summer brings a wider range of activities for all levels of injury. Handcycling and wheelchair tennis have been popular options over the years, and recently, sports like baseball, adaptive golf, and power soccer are beginning to develop across the United States.

Depression is common among people who are paralyzed, but it’s not normal — becoming discouraged, grief-stricken or sad is normal, but depression represents a condition that is a health problem unto itself. Most forms of depression, however, can be  treated.

While about 10 percent of the U.S. non-disabled population is said to be moderately or severely depressed, research shows that about 20 to 30 percent of people with long-term disabilities have a depressive  condition.

Depression affects a person in many ways. It involves major changes in mood, outlook, ambition, problem solving, activity level and bodily processes (sleep, energy and appetite). It affects health and wellness: People with a disability who are depressed may not look after themselves; they may not drink enough water, take care of their skin, manage their diet. It affects one’s social world. Friends and families are tuned out. Depressed people can’t find pleasure, success or meaning. Substance abuse may develop. Thoughts of suicide often occur when things look most hopeless. In spinal cord injury, for example, risk is highest in the first five years after the injury. Other risk factors include dependence on alcohol or drugs, lack of a spouse or close support network, access to lethal means, or a previous suicide attempt. People who’ve tried to kill themselves before are likely to try again. The most important factors in preventing suicide are spotting depression early, getting the right treatments for it, and instilling problem solving  skills.

Many factors contribute to depression. These may include the effects of disability — pain, fatigue, changes in body image, shame, and loss of independence. Other life events, such as divorce, loss of a loved one, loss of a job or financial problems can also lead to or magnify  depression.

There are effective ways for helping people cope with the stresses of paralysis. Depression is highly treatable using psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy (antidepressants), or a combination of both. Tricyclic drugs (e.g., imipramine) are often effective for depression but may have intolerable side effects. SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, e.g., Prozac) have fewer side effects and are usually as effective as tricyclics. SSRIs may exacerbate spasticity in some  persons.

Among the newest antidepressants, venlafaxine (e.g., Effexor) is chemically similar to tricyclics and has fewer side effects. In theory, it may also alleviate some forms of neurogenic pain, a huge contributor to depression. In fact, aggressive treatment of pain problems is crucial to the prevention of  depression.

Among those with MS, some experience mood swings and/or uncontrollable laughing or crying (called emotional lability). These result from damaged areas in emotional pathways in the brain. It is important for family members and caregivers to know this and realize that people with MS may not always be able to control their emotions. Mood stabilizing medications such as amitriptyline (e.g., Elavil) and valproic acid (e.g., Depakote) are used to treat these emotional changes. It is also important to recognize that depression is very common in MS — even more so than in other equally disabling chronic  illnesses.

Life is worth living, despite what health professionals are sometimes prone to judge: According to a Colorado survey, 86 percent of SCI high-level quadriplegics rated their quality of life as average or better than average, while only 17 percent of their ER doctors, nurses, and technicians thought they would have an average or better quality of life if they acquired  quadriplegia.

If you are depressed, get help, including professional counseling or participation in a support group. An active lifestyle can also help to break through  depression

If you are living with paralysis, and feeling depressed, visit out Peer and Family Support Team page to connect with a Mentor, or speak with one of our Information Specialists in our Paralysis Resource  center.

Contact a Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information  Specialist
Call toll free 1-800-539-7309
(Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Time)
You can also leave a message if you are calling after hours.
or request a call back using our online form at

SOURCE Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource  Center

All opinions expressed on USDR are those of the author and not necessarily those of US Daily Review.